GROWING up, Mario Jackson's greatest fear had always been losing his mother.
So on September 26, 2012 when he got a call from his grandmother informing him of the passing of his mom, Angela Harvey, his entire world was flipped upside down.
He was 19 years old and was living on campus at Mico University College. His mother had been diagnosed with pulmonary embolism.
"She had suffered with lung disease from as far as I can remember, which affected her breathing badly. The feeling of hopelessness and discouragement lingered for weeks, probably months. However, accepting the reality that life goes on, I was forced to pick up the pieces and help with parenting my three younger siblings. To further compound these issues, the passing of my eldest brother two years later significantly affected me mentally," 29-year-old Jackson, who is currently pursuing a PhD in Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis at North Carolina State University, told the Jamaica Observer in an interview last Thursday.
"To be honest, supportive friends and family members really got me through. While I was born in the inner-city of Kingston 13, I was raised in Caymanas Garden, Portmore, in an extended family. I was the second of five children until 2014 when my eldest brother drowned.
"While both my parents were uneducated, their value for education was evident in their efforts to support me and my siblings. Throughout my educational journey I have always been involved [in] and passionate about learning. From as early as I can remember, I would be playing school with my peers and pretending to be a teacher," Jackson recalled.
He was attending Waterford High School at the time, and said his experience there further honed that passion.
"I recall on several occasions being asked by my accounts and science teachers to teach my peers or lead particular sections of the lesson. In addition to this, my leadership roles as a student counsellor, and later, deputy head boy, would have allowed me to further develop my leadership skills and connection within the school community."
While he was always academically sharp, his passion was ignited in grade 9 through strong competition with three high-performing peers. They were the three students with the highest average in his year group.
"These individuals — Tresann, Creson and Andre who later became my best friends — motivated me to go beyond merely passing exams to aspiring for the highest grade and or average. After almost two years of competition, in my final year of high school I graduated with the highest average, the honour of being valedictorian, and with nine CSEC subjects," he shared with the Sunday Observer.
One of the biggest challenges Jackson said he faced growing up was a limitation on financial resources, which at times affected his education. Throughout high school he travelled to classes with only bus fare.
"Thanks to my peers and teachers who ensured I never went a day without lunch. However, during my sixth form years the cost of sending me and my siblings to school was overwhelming for my mother, who had to stretch remittances from my dad across my other school-aged siblings. This at times affected my ability to attend school and resulted in me missing out on vital instructions.
"The factors also played a role in my decision to change my career trajectory. Prior to sixth form I wanted to pursue a career in medicine. However, upon realising the financial obligations of such a pursuit I was happy to apply to Mico University College to pursue teaching, upon recommendation of their science programme from a neighbour. The National Parish Champion Scholarship received from NCB Foundation made this decision a particularly easy one as I believed this was destined to be. The award provided me with $250,000 for the duration of my undergraduate studies."
Throughout his time at Mico, Jackson was very involved in student governance, rising through the ranks from a year group representative in first and second year, to the position of guild president in his final year.
He holds that those experiences allowed him to serve as a voice for his peers who had various challenges. He lobbied for payment plans to prevent students from being deregistered or barred from sitting exams.
Upon graduating from Mico in 2015, he returned to Waterford High School where he taught chemistry and science for two years. While teaching, he also pursued a master's degree in educational management at Mico, an experience which further honed his interest and passion for school leadership and policy.
"In 2017 I migrated to the United States to teach science in a middle school for one year, followed by England where I taught for two years. During my time in England my teaching and leadership competencies were quickly recognised and I was asked to provide mentorship and coaching for new and struggling teachers. Shortly after, I was promoted to the role of behaviour coordinator for students in year 11," Jackson told the Sunday Observer.
Jackson's first authored research, Locating Equity in Principals' Pandemic Decisions, was recently published in the Peabody Journal of Education, a reputable journal published by Vanderbilt University in the US.
"Upon completion of my degree it is my intention to pursue a tenure track faculty position of educational leadership and policy studies. In such a role I anticipate carrying out research relevant to the interrogation of K-12 policies, leadership, and principal preparation practices, and their intersection with equity or inequities.
"It is also my hope to some day return to Jamaica and contribute to the development of its education system in the capacity of the minister of education, or a senior advisor to the minister," he said.